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MSD race highlights struggle of low enrollment

by ANDREW CHRISTMAN,

and MACKENZI KLEMANN

mklemann@wabashplaindealer.com

achristman@wabashplaindealer.com

The trend of declining student enrollment is one that MSD of Wabash County has struggled with for years.

In just the past decade, the school corporation has lost a net 410 students since the 2006-07 academic year, according to Indiana Department of Education data. It’s a problem that has been debated for years and is the central concern driving school board campaigns this fall. 

All seven candidates vying for a seat on the board agreed last Tuesday that something needs to be done so that the school corporation doesn’t lose too much revenue from declining enrollment. But there’s much disagreement as to what should be done. 

Current board member Matt Driscoll said the board will have to look for innovative ways to attract new students, like offering remote classes accessible to other schools in a model similar to what Heartland Career Center offers for vocational training. And fellow board member Todd Dazey, also running for reelection this fall, said he believes the district is missing a prime opportunity to market its schools to prospective transfer students living in southern Huntington County.

The school corporation has seen its share of transfer students, and advertising MSD schools to parents in neighboring counties may attract some new students. But the “Studies for Advancement,” a study conducted for MSD, Manchester Community Schools and Wabash City Schools in 2017, found that the overwhelming majority of transfer students here are coming from within Wabash County. The study also projects the three school corporations will experience a combined 6 percent decline in student population over the next decade, based on current population trends.

The board conducted two studies this year in lieu of the second phase of the “Studies for Advancement,” the first a consolidation tax rate analysis and the second a stakeholder survey. 

But four of the candidates campaigning for Dazey’s and Driscoll’s seats said Tuesday they are interested in participating in Phase II, and one candidate, Doug Bogert, suggested he might be interested. Several even went so far as to say they are open to consolidation or sharing resources with Wabash City Schools. 

Candidate views on consolidation: 

Tiffany Haupert (Northeast candiate): “I feel we aren’t moving forward on any issues because of fear. We all have an emotional tie to this community ... we need to be able to take emotion out of it. We need to make a choice to move forward. Consolidation has been a dirty word around here. I don’t care what we do as long as it’s in the best interest of the children. If that means consolidation, our children will be better for it.”

Teresa Galley (Northwest candidate): “You’ve probably heard this expression before, but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. That’s exactly what we’ve been doing. The state is squeezing budgets tighter and tighter. Do I believe in consolidation? I’m going to agree with Tiffany, if it’s the best answer. But we don’t have the numbers. When we get those facts, if they say coming together isn’t the best thing, I don’t think we should do it. I do think what they’re going to show us is there are definite areas where we can cut inefficiencies, work together and collaborate so money can go to the schools where our children are being educated.”

Todd Dazey (Northwest): “As far as consolidation ... this might surprise you for a bit, but believe it or not consolidation is on the table for me. What that looks like though, is that under no circumstances am I willing to agree to build a new building. My idea of a consolidation is we drive them (students) to the nearest school. We move far fewer kids around if we take the school in Wabash and we move them north and south. I don’t have a problem with consolidation; we just need to do it right.”

Doug Bogert (Northwest): “I think we definitely need to move forward, and we definitely need a lot of data to do that. It boggles my mind that with all of the things you can do with computers nowadays ... there’s no reason we couldn’t have a teacher in Southwood teaching students in Southwood, Wabash City Schools, Northfield and Manchester at the same time. There’s all types of things like that that need to be looked at.”

Matt Driscoll (Northeast): “We need to look outside the box. I give you Heartland (Career Center) as an example. What’s wrong with using the Heartland model for advanced classes, such as chemistry, biology and math, and using teachers specifically trained for dual credits and bring them in. We don’t know what schools are going to look like in the future. They probably won’t all be brick and mortar.”

Sandra Davis (Northeast): “At this point it’s too early to say whether I’m in favor of consolidation or not. We need more facts. We have questions that need to be answered. If it’s the best answer, we should move forward. If it’s not ... we should continue to look for ways to improve our school system and increase our efficiencies.”

Ryan Rosen (Northwest): “My definition (of consolidation) would be combining resources to become more educationally and financially efficient for long-term sustainability. My answer would be absolutely. That is our goal, to become more efficient and sustainable. What does that look like? I don’t know, it could be a combination of 100 things. We can’t really move forward until we have information. We need to move forward with finding a good solution through studies instead of assuming the worst. I want to focus on education first and taxes second. The job is to be education focused.”

A longer transcript of Tuesday’s debate is available at www.wabashplaindealer.com under the headline, “Forum explores candidates’ views of consolidation, collaboration,” or in Thursday’s print edition of the Plain Dealer.